When a woman breast-feeds someone else’s baby it is called ’wet nursing’. It was an ancient occupation mentioned in many early medical texts, including those by Aristotle and Ibn Sina. Wet nurses might act as foster parents for motherless babies or those whose mother was simply ill or not able to produce enough milk.
Wet nursing in Europe increased steadily from the 1000s onwards as urbanization increased. Country women, usually from farming families, were often preferred over women from towns and cities. Foundling hospitals, which took in abandoned babies, became a source of income for wet nurses. The traditional wet nurse was expected to have a strong body, good milk and to be sympathetic, clean and tidy, active and of good character. She would nurse the infant until it was weaned from breast milk, and might remain long enough to become the child's nanny. In some cases, the wet nurse was considered a member of the family.
The birth of the Dionne quintuplets in 1934, who were born prematurely in Quebec, proved to be a pivotal event in the publics’ perception of breast milk and milk banking.
Initially, milk for the Quintuplets was gifted from lactating neighbors. By their fourth day of life, it was arriving by rail shipments from Toronto Hospital for Sick Children. The quintuplets consumed over 500 gallons of breast milk in a 5-month period.
Popular magazine articles about the Dionne quintuplets brought the work of milk banks to the public consciousness, shedding light on what had been an obscure medical phenomenon. In November 1943, an article in Parents Magazine reminded readers that “Over two-million American blood donors to help save our fighting men”. The author then inquired: “Is it too much to ask that American mothers give milk to save American babies?” (2)
The use of animal's milk for infant feeding is noted as far back as 2000 BC. Since then, alternative milk sources have evolved to include the synthetic formulas of today. The use of artificial feeding substances expanded quickly and was promoted by advertising campaigns. Sadly, many mothers felt that formula feeding was superior to her own milk, and this started a large decline in breastfeeding rates. Although the manufacturers of synthetic formulas try to mimic the components found in breast milk, formulas to not change in daily composition, which responds to the needs of a growing baby. (3) Formula is not responsive to a growing infant's nutritional needs, which makes the digestive process more difficult. (4)
The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics are among many health care organizations that support when a mother’s own milk is not available for fragile babies, the next best alternative is banked donor human milk.
In November 2010, the Canadian Paediatric Society issued a position statement stating “When mother’s own milk is unavailable for the sick, hospitalized newborn, pasteurized human donor breast milk should be made available as an alternative feeding choice followed by commercial formula.” (5)
Human milk is specific to feeding human babies. It offers maximum nutritional benefits to all babies and in premature babies it can also act as a medicine.
The unique benefits of human breast milk feeding are seen both in improved short and long-term health and development of the child, as well as the health of the mother.
In the last 30 years there has been substancial growth in the number of milk banks within North America. The Human Milk Banking Association of North America was created in 1985 to set guidelines for the safety and use of pasteurized donor human milk. As of November 2015 there are 20 HMBANA milk banks operating in North America: 17 in the United States and 3 in Canada. (6)
(2) Pearl P. Puckett, “Milk Banks for Babies.” Parent’s Magazine 18 (1943):20
(3) J Perinat Educ. 2009 Spring; 18(2): 32–39
(4) Lawrence P. Breast milk best source of nutrition for term and preterm infants.
Pediatric Clinics of North America. 1994;41(5):925–941
(5) Paediatr Child Health 2010;15(9):595-8